Today is the festival of Christ’s baptism which presents us with the opportunity to spend some time thinking about baptism, in particular our own baptism and the vows which were made for us. We can consider so,e of the questions which surround Baptism.
– what is baptism, what does it mean?
– why was Christ, who was perfect, baptised?
– why do we baptise people now? In particular, why do we baptise people as children?
1. What is baptism, what does it mean?
Literally the word baptise means soaked, damped or moistened – dipped.
One might think of sheep dipping and certainly there are elements of cleansing and resonances with Jewish ritual washing. But it is more than that – it is the same word that is used for the dying of cloth – once “baptised”the cloth is changed forever, transformed.
When John baptised people it was a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:4 NRSV). The Greek word for repentance (metnoia) literally means “change of mind”. John was expecting people to be fundamentally changed by baptism.
Another image is of the manufacture of candles – a wick is dipped into hot wax where is gets a first coat of wax – arguably it is now a candle – albeit a small one. it is then repeatedly dipped, building up its thickness with each dipping.
I like to make the sign of the cross on my forehead whenever I pass a font in a church – ideally with water if there is some in it. In this way I am going over the mark of my own baptism – increasing the wax on my spiritual candle.
2. Why was Christ, who was perfect, baptised?
If Jesus was the Son of God then why would he need to “repent for the forgiveness of his sins”. Indeed, the Gospel stories tell us of John’s reluctance to baptise Christ – the one whose sandal he is not worthy to untie (Mat 3:13).
Christ’s baptism is a sign of his common humanity with us. He is one of us, one with us.
Like us he came from somewhere – he was on a faith journey like us – he was a fellow pilgrim.
He joined the followers of John – who prepared the way for him.
His baptism marked the start of his ministry – a turning point – perhaps, a metanoia.
Interestingly Mark’s Gospel starts here – this is the beginning of the Gospel – in fact the first words of Mark’s gospel are precisely these: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God”.
Arguably the Christian church starts here.
The Old Testament initation rite of circumcision is replaced by the New Testament rite of baptism.
That’s why our other reading today was from Genesis chapter 1. The beginning of the world. Mark 1 is the start of the new covenant – a new world.
It seems very appropriate that we have this festival in January – the month when we make resolutions and look to make new starts.
3 Why do we baptise people now? Why baptise children?
Today baptism is the sole, necessary and sufficient rite of initiation into the Christian Church
There can be no double dipping! Or at least, once baptised you are baptised for life.
By being baptised you are marked as being part of the Church.
Baptism marks that decision on our part – a decision to let ourselves be changed by the Holy Spirit, to follow Christ in baptism and in life – to be a part of the Church whose mission is to follow Christ and to continue his ministry on earth
Traditionally it was a decision which was taken for us by our parents and supported by our Godparents – who were worried that we were going to hell if we were not baptised.
You may have read Dante’ Inferno where limbo is the circle of hell reserved for the unbaptised.
But are we not all, already saved by Jesus? And what about people in remote places of the world who have never even heard of Jesus let alone been offered the opportunity to be baptised.
Well, it depends on your theology. Personally I don’t believe that we are any of us saved or any of us damned by God – but by ourselves. In order to save ourselves then we need to acknowledge God and God as revealed in Christ and follow him.
In many ways I think it is a shame in the Anglican Church that we don’t delay Baptism until adulthood. When we can make these decisions for ourselves. Adult baptism is a very moving ceremony – especially with total immersion of the kind described by Mark.
But we can reaffirm our baptism. And we are going to do that today. Like a candle being dipped again we can bolster our faith and strengthen our discipleship by repeating those promises which were made for us, in some cases, many years ago, since, ultimately, no one else can accept the Holy Spirit into our lives but ourselves.
At this time of New Year’s resolutions, what better resolution can we make than to follow Christ?
Decisions from the service of Baptism:
In baptism, God calls us out of darkness into his marvellous light. To follow Christ means dying to sin and rising to new life with him. Therefore I ask:
Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?
I reject them.
Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil?
I renounce them.
Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?
I repent of them.
Do you turn to Christ as Saviour?
I turn to Christ.
Do you submit to Christ as Lord?
I submit to Christ.
Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life?
I come to Christ.
The decision was followed by the blessing of water and an act of aspersion
Notes from an address by Chris Hancock, St. Mary’s, Headley
Festival of the Baptism of Christ, 11th January, 2015